ASA08: Ownership and appropriation

A joint international conference of the ASA, the ASAANZ and the AAS
8th - 12th December 2008, University of Auckland, New Zealand

The goal of this conference is to extend the area of anthropological theorising which has recently been dominated by the term ‘property’ by shifting the focus from property and property relations to notions and acts of ‘owning and appropriating’ which precede, underwrite and inform property relations. This emphasis is highly relevant in a globalising world in which resources are at once being depleted and increasingly privatised or enclosed, and ideas about the very kinds of things that can be property are expanding (Eriksen 2003). Anthropology, with its emphasis on agency and understanding actors’ perspectives, is well placed to advance colloquial understandings of such processes.

The past decade has seen renewed anthropological interest in property. Work by Chris Hann (1998) and Marilyn Strathern (1999), among others, has demonstrated the relevance of anthropology to articulating the complex relations between people and things, as well as the negotiations between people with respect to things. Similarly, anthropology has made significant contributions to global debates about intellectual, biological and cultural property (Brown 1998, 2003; Coombe 1998; Hirsch and Strathern 2004; Posey 2004; Widlock and Tadesse 2005; Ziff and Rao 1997). In this conference, we hope to broaden these discussions with papers that explore the more dynamic and encompassing ideas of ownership and appropriation in both metaphor and substance, in both legal and non-legal contexts, and in relation to both tangibles and intangibles. We note at the outset that appropriation refers to a spectrum of activities, some of which can be framed positively in terms of agency and creativity (Hirsch and Strathern 2004; Kalinoe and Leach 2004, Strang 2005), some (such as corruption) which are perceived more negatively, and some which are unequivocally nefarious, such as theft, enslavement, and appropriation through violence (Bales 1999; Haller and Shore 2005).

We made a point of inviting papers that examine aspects of ownership and appropriation in everyday life, and the myriad daily acts of production, consumption and social participation through which people construct identity and ownership. This includes the ways in which they express agency and power by making places, products, and practices their own (Daunton and Hilton 2001; Friedman 1994; Jackson and Moore 1995; Miller 1995, 2001), and their efforts to create claims of ownership by participating in social activities, for example by volunteering for conservation groups or church organisations. Here the investment of self into labour can be seen as a form of appropriation.

Ownership and appropriation have a particular political salience in settler societies such as New Zealand and Australia, where processes of appropriation and claims to ownership are intrinsically linked to issues of identity and belonging for the different participants in the nation state. This is most obviously the case with respect to land and natural resources, where disputes over ownership must confront a history of colonial (and postcolonial) appropriation, as well as contemporary questions about nationhood and how best to achieve the common good. In New Zealand this is evident, for example, in recent debates over the ownership of the foreshore and seabed in which Māori claims to ownership were rejected by Parliament in favour of common ownership by all New Zealanders. While this can be considered as an act of State appropriation, in the sense of ‘making something one’s own’, some Māori saw it as yet another example of appropriation in its other sense, of ‘taking something improperly’. The continuing debate over this issue has highlighted culturally different understandings of ownership, especially in relation to parallel ideas of care, stewardship and belonging.

In Australia, ownership and appropriation remain central to political debates. There are direct conflicts over the ownership of land and resources, and also more subtle issues about the rights conferred by different forms of attachment to land, and the investment of labour and history and identity ‘in place’ (Beckett 1988; Morphy 1993; Strang 1997; Toussaint 2004; Trigger 2003). There are challenging questions as to whether the articulation of non-indigenous spiritual and affective relations to land, and visions of a national ‘cultural heritage’, constitute an appropriation of the representations underpinning Aboriginal land rights. And as Australia faces urgent problems in relation to the health of its land and water resources, the ‘ownership’ of environmental management is also increasingly contested.

Related issues around ownership feature in other Pacific countries, as well as in metropoles such as the United Kingdom. The current political situation in Fiji, for instance, demonstrates the continuing effects of colonial policies, as well as the connection between ethnic identity and ownership, both of land and of state institutions. Recent events in Tonga, on the other hand, point to processes and consequences of the appropriation of new resources and new forms of power by traditional indigenous elites. In a variety of contexts, the enclosure of land and the privatisation of resources such as water and marine resources raise issues of ownership and the commons (Bender 1998; Blatter and Ingram 2001; Mosse 2005; Strang 2004). State ownership (of land and resources, or State-owned enterprises) raises reciprocal questions of who owns the State and – in the case of multicultural or multinational States – whether the nation state can be co-owned. We look forward to discussions which draw on the potentially diverse perspectives that conference participants will bring to these issues, and we especially invite papers from Pacific Island scholars.

Appropriation – both in the sense of making something one’s own and in the sense of taking something without permission – is also relevant in discussions of intangibles such as cultural symbols, knowledge and practices. The reification of culturally significant objects and practices (in the case of Māori, for example, as taonga and tikanga) is often a precursor to ownership and hence to appropriation. A critical issue here is how – and to what extent – anthropologists reify indigenous knowledge and thus contribute to its appropriation and alienation (Caplan 2003; Posey 2004; Tuhiwai-Smith 1999).

Appropriation, especially the appropriation of differences, has also been a key concept in feminist politics and the anthropology of gender, in thinking, for example, about the appropriation of gendered domains, the shifting appropriation of ‘traditional’ women’s products, and whether gender mainstreaming (e.g., in social development work) constitutes an appropriation of women’s interests and concerns. As with land and natural resources, the appropriation of difference is closely associated with systems of equality and inequality, and we hope that conference participants will explore the nexus of owning, appropriating, and difference on the one hand and hierarchy, stratification, and power on the other. Appropriation also appears in other areas of gender interest, such as the body, where eating constitutes the first, and possibly prototypic, act of appropriation. There are strong links here with issues of identity (Caplan 1997; Nast and Pile 1998), which intersect usefully with a more processual view of ownership and agency.

Metaphorical concepts of ownership are also regularly used to define power and agency in other spheres. Thus one can talk of ‘owning a decision’, ‘owning a process’, or ‘owning an institution or organisation’ to suggest that people have made the decision, process, or organisation their own. In these instances ownership can be contrasted with experiences of alienation resulting from a lack of representation in processes and institutions. It would be interesting to explore these more figurative extensions of ideas about appropriation and ownership, as well as those found in languages other than English, and the mutual influence between euphemistic and non-euphemistic uses of ‘appropriation’ in political and daily discourses.

Running through these various dimensions of owning and appropriating are our concerns with process rather than states of being, with dynamism rather than stasis, with agency and creativity rather than with property and objects, and with the materialisation of social relations and social organisation rather than with the objects that are appropriated and owned per se. We feel that this approach offers a broad range of potentially fruitful investigations.  


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